Roger Bart was terribly misled.
“I was told Bradley Cooper [People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive in 2011] was signed up to do this. I’d ask and they kept saying, no, Bradley is still doing it. And I was like, wait, it’s Michael Keaton and Bradley Cooper. And I thought, this is going to be a thrilling experience, and then I got here to the read-through and it was a whole different ballgame.”
Bart instead sat down at that first read-through of the Pasadena Playhouse revival of Yasmina Reza’s Art with Michael O’Keefe (Michael Clayton and Golden Globe and Academy Award nominee for The Great Santini) and Bradley Whitford (The West Wing, Emmy winner in 2001).
Over lunch at a nearby sushi restaurant, the three laugh at inside jokes. Bart, who originated the role of Carmen Ghia in The Producers and won a Tony Award in 1999 as Snoopy in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, often instigates.
He explains that the first time he saw “Bradley” [Whitford, not Cooper] was on a flight. “We were in first class. I had used all of my American Express points and he was being flown by a company. He was in disguise, so I wasn’t quite sure if it was him – a baseball cap, kind of longish hair and glasses. Then we rode an elevator the next morning.”
Before getting inside the Pasadena Playhouse rehearsal space, Bart says he knew one of them would have to break the ice. “So Brad wrote me a note,” says Bart. “’Hey, Roger, Coop here’…and obviously the illusion continued. ‘I’m a huge fan of your work and am really excited to do this play. P.S. Stay the fuck out of my light.’ And to which I responded, ‘Hey Brad, I’m so glad you reached out. I too am a huge fan of mine and I can’t wait to see me in your light’. [The trio laughs.] I never heard back. I was kind of scared. Finally on the third day of rehearsal, I asked him if he got my note and he said he did, so thank God.”
While Reza’s God of Carnage puts two couples on stage, her Art is the story of three men, longtime friends — one of whom, Serge (O’Keefe), buys a very expensive and rather inexplicable piece of art. The white canvas with mostly white lines forces the trio (with Whitford as Marc and Bart as Yvan) to examine which is more valuable — good art or good friendships.
Nine-time Emmy winner David Lee (TV’s Frasier; Camelot, Can-Can and Light Up the Sky at the Playhouse) directs.
In their personal lives, Whitford is the youngest of five siblings, Bart is the youngest of four and O’Keefe the oldest of seven.
As he grew up, O’Keefe says, the topics of conversations he had with his siblings never rose higher than what they were going to watch on television any given night. “It wasn’t about art or values or anything like that. What [the conversational tone among the characters in Art] really does remind me of is the relationship between lovers.”
Put lovers or spouses exiting a museum or movie theater or any shared experience, O’Keefe believes, and you can have “that Rashomon thing happen where one would see it one way and the other would see it another and you’d build into a gut-check on your own value system. These are my best friends and they think that way? Wow!”
“For me,” says the politically active Whitford, “it’s like people who say you shouldn’t talk about politics. If you keep talking about politics, it’s ultimately going to get very personal because it’s an expression of values. When you’re talking about art, in its most fundamental way, you’re going to touch on those very hot values that underlie how you define it.”
It is Bart who plays the peacemaker in Art. “I was and remain a peacemaker in my house. We were really never allowed or encouraged to argue. Unfortunately that wonderful dynamic disappeared with my father’s father who was a lover of debate. As the youngest, I would do anything to keep peace because I couldn’t handle the contentiousness. There’s definitely a lot of that going on with Yvan.”
Similarly, among his friends, Bart says it’s live and let live. “I am not a particularly judgmental friend. If people are happy doing what they do, I don’t try to disrupt it or put my foot down. I’m much more accepting, so in that way this role is an easy fit.” Yvan, in fact, is demeaned for not expressing an opinion.
Whitford, who has campaigned in his native Wisconsin for Al Gore and others, admits that his liberal political views could cost him friends or relationships. “I have family and friends who disagree vehemently with me about politics and it can get very personal. It’s not just opinion. It’s a statement about values.”
He teeters on the line between opinion and values when he relates his feelings toward the play. “In the arena of modern art, I’m not acting at all [when he expresses Marc’s disdain]. I share the frustration and rage at a lot of modern art because I do think exactly as my character says, ‘The highest value in a lot of modern art is simply surprise’. It’s an originality contest which I think is a pretty shallow aesthetic.”
This raises O’Keefe’s hackles. “Give me that microphone,” he says. “Don’t get me started, pal, on whether contemporary art or modern art is based on surprise.” He then echoes Serge’s words. “There’s a trajectory. There’s a system behind it.” He seems to be joking when he asks Whitford if he wants to step outside to talk about it.
He must be joking. O’Keefe has had a Zen practice for the past 25 years or so and says he keeps several minimalist pieces of Zen art in his downtown Los Angeles loft.
“I don’t practice Zen,” Whitford pipes in. “I mastered it.”
Whitford, whose 17-year marriage with actress Jane Kaczmarek ended in 2009, purchased a home in Pasadena, still near the school their three children attend. The most expensive piece of art in his home, he says, is a signed sketch of the Lorax, the 1971 Dr. Seuss character who spoke on behalf of trees then and is the subject of an upcoming animated movie voiced by Danny DeVito, Zac Efron and Taylor Swift.
Bart and O’Keefe ooh and aah at the mention of having a signed Lorax.
“I don’t mind abstraction,” adds Whitford. “But I despise the monetization of the art world. It’s elite. And it’s disgusting to me that art literally becomes traded like a currency.”
“In a way,” O’Keefe says, “the art market has been less volatile than the housing market. I think it goes to the point that Yasmina tried to make.”
O’Keefe points to the Australian art critic Robert Hughes. “He came of age in the early ’70s in New York and had a real cutting-edge feel. He did a documentary called The Mona Lisa Curse.”
The movie, O’Keefe continues, shows how then-President John F. Kennedy welcomed the Mona Lisa when it arrived for a brief stay in early 1963 — a one-painting tour, courtesy of the French government. It was part and parcel of the US-USSR space race competition, and Kennedy, says O’Keefe, gave a masterful speech.
After the painting had been in the country for two months, Hughes had a watershed moment, says O’Keefe, who recently appeared in the HBO movie Too Big to Fail. “When people came to see it, they weren’t interested in the painting any more. They were interested in the experience of having been there and being able to say to their friends and family ‘I was there. I saw it’. It was no longer about the painting; it was about the experience.”
Hughes, he says, made the point that it’s no longer a painting and being appreciated as such. “It has cultural baggage and had become branded. That for him signaled a shift in the priorities of art and speaks to the point that Brad brings up, which is that there is a commodification of it.”
The late artist Robert Rauschenberg would sell a work for a thousand dollars, O’Keefe says, then “go to [the auction house] Sotheby’s and be flipped for $35,000, and he would be stuck in a position with the guy who bought it from him: ‘Hey man, look, you bought it from me for a thousand and you’re flipping it for 35 [thousand]? What do I get?'”
This prompted Rauschenberg to lobby Congress for a law that would enable artists to receive a commission when a work is re-sold. It failed, O’Keefe laments.
“People with money are driving the art market,” he says. “It’s no longer an art-driven art market.”
Whitford, who appeared last season as Red John on CBS’s The Mentalist and appears in the upcoming films Savannah, Cabin in the Woods and Decoding Annie Parker, says it’s a symptom of the over-monetization of so many arenas. “We’re all aware of the box office now. You can tell the front runners in a presidential election by how much money they have.”
What about movie stars?
“Well, we deserve it,” he says with barely a hint of irony. “I’m not naive here, but when you’re talking about art and you completely lose touch with any…inherent value, as opposed to monetary value, or it becomes something beyond what the painting is communicating and becomes part of the system, there’s something offensive to me about that.”
Art was written for three middle-aged men. Could it be performed by guys in their 20s? “Any play can be,” posits Bart, “but can it be done well? I don’t think so. They’d just walk out and say, hey no problem, I’ll just get some new friends.”
Whitford interjects. “I think these guys have to have motored through some relationships and through some career trajectory and motored into the existential realization that middle age brings.”
Bart, who recently appeared in ABC’s Revenge and this year participated in Excision, a Sundance Film Festival entrant, remembers seeing A Chorus Line in 1981 or so and another production just a few years ago. “What struck me in the original was the desperation of these 30- and 40-year-olds, but the newer production with 20-somethings singing ‘Oh God, I need this job’? I thought, no, you don’t. Sorry, it’s not there. I didn’t get a lot of jobs in my 20s and I was fine. Fine. It’s like doing Art — you have to have been around. You need some miles on the odometer.”
Conversely, could Art be as potent if delivered by men in their 70s?
“I think at that point you don’t have the energy for this kind of disagreement,” says Whitford.
“I also think at that age you’re quite set,” adds Bart. “But I think the guys, at this age, our age, are able to change and are still learning about these 15-year-long friendships that each one is hugely invested in. By the end of the play I think everyone has greater clarity and there is a commitment to remain good friends.”
As the trio walks the block back to the rehearsal space, they’re more like comrades than actors worried about who’ll steal their light.
Art, produced by Pasadena Playhouse. Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. at 4 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Feb. 19. Tickets: $29-59; premium seating, $100. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. 626-356-7529. Ticket sales at the box office or online at www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org.
***All Art production photos by Jim Cox